ORLANDO, Fla. — Is Rick Perry about to lose his momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination?
The Texas governor turned in a weak performance in a debate Thursday, raising questions about how ready he is for the rigors of a tough campaign and how much Republicans really know about the man.
At the same time, chief rival Mitt Romney scored with a sharp performance. And others shined in the eyes of Republican voters as well, including Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Combined, the results heading out of the debate in Orlando suggest a party far from ready to coalesce behind Perry.
"It was Mitt Romney's best performance so far and Rick Perry's worst performance so far," said Republican researcher Frank Luntz.
"Perry created some doubt about himself," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who attended the debate and a three-day gathering of more than 3,000 conservative activists.
"This is a world of people used to good speakers with clear views," she said. "They worry now about his ability to stand beside President Obama in a debate."
At the gathering of conservatives Friday in the same convention center as the debate, it was all but impossible to find anyone who thought Perry did well Thursday night. The criticisms included his style — uniformly described as halting and unsure — and the substance, particularly his defense of in-state college tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants not available to citizens from other states.
"Perry looked uncomfortable. He got caught up on a couple of the questions. He was inconsistent," said Meg Shannon, a retired lawyer from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who attended the debate.
"I was leaning toward Mitt, but I wanted to hear the candidates," she said. "Mitt did very well."
Harold Armstrong, a pastor from St. Cloud, Fla., who attended the debate and a Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, also came away unimpressed by Perry.
"I did not think Perry did well. He seemed a little tentative," Armstrong said.
He said that Romney "came across looking presidential" and that his own favorite, Newt Gingrich, scored by offering what he thought were the best answers. "He gives thoughtful replies, not canned responses," Armstrong said.
Jean Morris, a retired teacher from St. Cloud, walked away still leaning toward Perry. But she, too, acknowledged that he didn't do very well.
On the question of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, for example, she said he fumbled by failing to stress that it also requires those students promise to seek permanent resident status as a condition for the tuition break. "It disappointed me that he didn't mention that," she said.
Perry's performance underscored how fast he surged to the lead when he jumped into the race just six weeks ago, how untested he is, and how unscrutinized his record is beyond his boast of creating jobs.
Perry all but acknowledged his weakness as a debater during a speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
"As conservatives," he said, "we know that values and vision matter. It's not who's the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect."
Despite his 10 years as governor, Perry had only faced rivals in a debate four times before he starting running for president. He's now debated three times on that stage.
Some analysts said he tires, and finishes poorly.
"He had a so-so performance," Republican political strategist Karl Rove said Friday on Fox News Channel. "He started off strong ... but as one observer put it, at about minute 42 he begins to fade."
Perry's also facing tough scrutiny over the less advertised parts of his record, such as the support for in-state tuition and opposition to a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, both touchy subjects for conservatives.
William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, a North Carolina group, said that 81 percent of Americans oppose in-state tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants. "Rick Perry is finished," he said.
From the podium Thursday, Perry brushed aside anyone who opposes the tuition breaks as heartless. That set up Santorum to score by noting that conservatives don't want to deny the students access to college, as Perry suggested, just the prudential tuition denied to citizens from other states.
"Perry made a fundamental mistake when he said you have no heart. That was the moment when Perry people said, 'We can't take this, it's too much,'" said Luntz, who conducted a focus group for Fox News of Florida Republicans watching the debate.
Another stumble came when Perry was asked why he hasn't produced a detailed plan to create jobs, as other candidates have done. He said only that he'll produce one later.
"They thought he was ill prepared," Luntz said. "They think at this point you should have a plan. He was caught flatfooted."
Ultimately, Perry still has enormous strengths in the still-developing campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination. He has a record of job growth in his home state to brag about. He has a generally conservative record. And he's got a warm style of campaigning one on one matched by charisma.
What he doesn't have, as this week showed, is an ability to face rivals and win in televised debates, one key element of the coming campaign for the nomination and then against Barack Obama.
"He has a presence," said Luntz. "They see it. They feel it. But he needs to acquire the ability to articulate to go along with that presence."
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